AGRICULTURE remains the key priority sector in the growth and poverty reduction agenda of the New Dawn government.
This is so because more than 60 per cent of the population, mostly rural-based, derives its livelihood from agriculture.
Despite Zambia experiencing strong economic growth in the recent past, agriculture has not performed well.
The agriculture sector in Zambia for a long time has faced a number of challenges which has hindered its growth and development.
For the past years, there has been low spending on agriculture-related developments resulting in dilapidated agricultural support infrastructure and inadequate delivery of extension service.
The sector has faced inadequate value addition due to lack of fully developed agro-industries resulting in export of raw materials.
For a long time now, farmers have failed to increase their production because they use extensive labour and dependant on rains for irrigation.
Small scale farmers who produce 80 per cent of the total food produced in the country and sell their crop to the Food Reserve Agency (FRA) have faced delays in payments.
The delay in the paying farmers over the years has affected production and planning of the subsequent season.
But the coming of the United Party for National Development (UPND) has taken concrete actions and is putting in place policies that provide public support and investment in agriculture with a view to creating an enabling environment to attract private sector and smallholder interest in farm production, processing and trade.
The new dawn government with its first year in office managed to address this challenge of delayed payment by making available the money to pay farmers.
In January this year when it was just four months in office it cleared all outstanding payment to farmers for the 2021/2022 farming season.
The treasure released K1.6 billion to FRA for outstanding payments to farmers under the 2020/2021 marketing season.
Finance and National Planning Minister Situmbeko Musokotwane said the release of the funds by the treasury was significant because it represents a policy shift of the UPND government to prioritise the agriculture sector.
Dr Musokotwane said the agricultural sector presented the country’s best opportunity to attain growth, especially that the majority of the people, about 80 per cent, were dependent on it.
“The sector has a relatively short gestation period with low capital requirements that are necessary to address poverty and vulnerability.
The sector has for a long time faced a number of impediments to the realisation of its full potential,” he said.
Dr Musokotwane said historical delayed payments for grains supplied to the FRA had an impact on the productivity of a subsequent farming season.
He said the matter was substantially dealt with this month so that farmers could focus on their fields instead of chasing their payments.
In order to enhance productivity and to fully exploit the potential of this sector, the UPND government in April this year launched the National Mechanization Strategy that is aimed at revamping the agriculture sector.
The strategy will support the empowerment of smallholder farmers and enable them to shift from using traditional methods, such as the hand hoe, to modern, mechanized farming that will increase yields per hectare, boost incomes and expand Zambia’s agriculture production considerably.
Launching the strategy in Lusaka in April this year, Agriculture Minister Reuben Mutolo said this will create a conducive environment that will facilitate ownership and support affordable leasing of agriculture machinery to the smallholder farmers.
The strategy will positively impact local food processing and ensure household and national food security and will help to modernize farming.
By increasing production and boosting incomes of the local farmers, the mechanisation will also increase Zambia’s agriculture exports to the region and beyond, and in doing so, it will create jobs and positively impact manufacturing through value addition.
In Order to increase agriculture exports and encourage production, the UPND government has left the borders open for exports of maize and other agricultural products.
Just a few months ago, the government made an agreement for the export of 100,000 tonnes of soya beans to Tanzania.
And in April this year, the country commenced the export of the avocado after it met phytosanitary requirements to export the fruit into Europe.
This marked the start of huge market opportunities for Zambia’s avocado growers.
Plant Quarantine and Phytosanitary Services Director Kenneth Msiska said the Ministry of Agriculture is already finalising discussions with South African authorities to start exporting Zambian avocados to that country.
The increased Constituency Development Fund (CDF) by the UPND government from K1.6 million to K26 million has given an opportunity for cooperatives in the agriculture sector to access funding to expand their production and venture into value addition.
From this year’s budget, the UPND government is implementing a new comprehensive agriculture support programme commencing in the 2022/2023 season.
This programme is cost effective, better targeted and equitable across beneficiaries, it is supporting the supply of quality inputs, attaining diversification of crops as well as increasing production and productivity.
Dr Musokotwane said during the budget presentation for this year that the UPND government was doing more in agriculture by promoting large scale estate production for both domestic and export markets.
The estates can employ many people at different levels of skills, create associated business opportunities, support agro industry, support viable out-grower schemes and earn foreign exchange.
“The new dawn government is already discussing with some cooperating partners to secure both the technical and financial support for the development of some farm blocks, for example the Nansanga farm block, which had been abandoned in the last ten years,” Dr Musokotwane said.
He said in order to reduce dependence on rain-fed agriculture; the new dawn government will complete and operationalise the ongoing irrigation infrastructure projects.
Dr Musokotwane said the government would also mobilise highly concessional financing for irrigation equipment for small-scale farmers.
This move the new dawn government has taken to develop and prioritise the agriculture sector, it is very hopeful that the country would depend on it for growth and poverty reduction.